OVERTIME | World Cup brings soccer to forefront

I am a soccer junkie. While many are discussing how many points  the Los Angeles Lakers’ Kobe Bryant scored or how many yards the Tennessee Titans’ Chris Johnson gained, I am talking about the newest move by Christiano Ronaldo, or the latest Chicharito goal. While others are working on their play calls in Madden 2011, I am working on scoring a hat trick in FIFA 2011.

Living in the United States, where soccer is far from being at the top of the food chain, it is both a gift and a curse to appreciate and love the sport.

The irony is that soccer is hands-down the most popular sport in the world.

Football, as it’s called outside of the United States, is simple to learn and children around the world start playing at an early age. After all, it only requiure a ball and two goals for equipment.

Sitting atop the American sports food chain are baseball, basketball and American football. These giants have made it difficult for soccer to compete for recognition.

In addition to competing for media coverage, soccer also has to compete with American culture.

It is not in the nature of American sports to be patient or to go five minutes without seeing a highly-athletic move that will make the top 10 on “SportsCenter.”

This column is not

intended to insult the mere popular sports as I appreciate those too. I just want to find room for soccer in the United States between the home runs, dunks and big hits.

Until this summer, I had nearly lost all hope that the United States could appreciate soccer.

The 2010 FIFA World Cup certainly did not propel soccer to the number one spot, but it did give the U.S. men’s national soccer team an opportunity to capture the hearts and minds of Americans, despite several tough games.

I will be the first to admit that U.S. soccer frustrated me by putting itself in near-impossible, come-from-behind positions. However, the U.S. team found a way to make overcoming early deficits a hallmark of their style.

That style created an interesting combination of nervousness and exhilaration—enough so that Americans began to pay attention to the team and, in turn, the sport. For the first time in American sports history, soccer had a significant number of casual fans.

I went to a few World Cup viewing parties in 2006, but those consisted mostly of people who were year-round fans of soccer.

The 2010 World Cup viewing parties were different because there were people in attendance who were not soccer aficionados, but fans curious about soccer or patriotic enough to give it a chance while cheering for the U.S. team.

That patriotism was evident during the U.S. team’s final group stage game versus Algeria.

The U.S. was once again in a tough spot when it came to qualifying for the Round of 16. Without a win against Algeria, the U.S. would fail to advance. Sure enough, Landon Donovan scored in the 91st minute to clinch a 1-0 victory and first place in Group C of the tournament.

I was in Las Vegas at the time and watched the game at The Mirage’s Sports Book. Luckily, nobody in Vegas ever sleeps so there was a large crowd present despite the early start time out west. The U.S. had a handful of chances to score prior to the goal in stoppage time, but came up short. Some chances were foiled by the Algerian goalkeeper; some failed due to American errors.

But when Donovan scored the winning goal, the decibel level in the casino was nearly deafening. People were hugging and high-fiving as if they had been lifelong friends.

The U.S. lost a tough game against Ghana in the Round of 16, but the excitement of the World Cup  reverberated even after the U.S. was ousted.

Personally, I never thought the day would come when my sister would ask me what “off-sides” meant in soccer. I never thought there would be a day when I heard my dad walking around our house saying, “They’re looking for the equalizer,” in his best impression of English commentator Martin Tyler—an equalizer is the tying goal for a team currently behind.

Much to my enjoyment, both of those days came this summer.

Unfortunately, I doubt the energy and interest will last until the 2014 World Cup. I also doubt that I will overhear the common Butler student discussing the latest game involving Celtic FC or FC Bayern Munich during lunch in Atherton.

Still, Americans are getting more and more opportunities every day to learn more about soccer.

Older European stars continue to cross the Atlantic, into the U.S. to finish their careers.

David Beckham was a recent high-profile transfer. Frencman Thierry Henry will be playing for Major League Soccer’s (MLS) New York Red Bulls this season.

Also, the MLS will be adding two teams, Vancouver Whitecaps FC and Portland Timbers FC, for the 2011 season.

Is soccer the most popular sport in the United States? Certainly not. Is it in the top five? Depends on who you ask. For now though, I can live with it being labeled a “growing sport.”

That small comfort should tide me over until London hosts the Union of European Football Associations’ final next May at Wembley Stadium.

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